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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Tobit, (Oratorio in Three Parts (1764?) compiled by John Christopher Smith, 1712-1795) [2:36:22]
Maya Boog (soprano ‘Anna’)
Linda Perillo (soprano ‘Sarah’)
Barbara Hannigan (soprano ‘Azarias’/’Raphael’)
Alison Browner (mezzo ‘Tobias’)
Knut Schoch (tenor ‘Tobit’)
Stephan MacLeod (bass ‘Raguel’)
Junge Kantorei
Frankfurt Baroque Orchestra/Joachim Carlos Martini
rec. 3 June, 2001, Kloster Eberbach, Rheingau, Germany. DDD
NAXOS 8.570113-14 [76:22 + 80:00] 

 


Handel’s first oratorio was Esther, composed in 1732. Then, from the late 1730s – despite composing operas at a phenomenal rate: one every eight months on average – he began to concentrate less on that form, and more on oratorio. There are several reasons for this: oratorio was a new form in English and in many ways sat better with London audiences used to more down-to-earth dramatic conventions than the plots of some of his operas. Oratorio also appealed closely to English Protestant sensibilities. There were advantages of language; what was more, it required no expensive stage spectacle, and was able to draw on ‘native’ singers. But what we have on this CD both is and is not a Handel oratorio… 

Johann Christoph Schmidt the elder was born in 1683; he may have met Handel in Halle while the latter was briefly a student there. In 1716 he certainly accepted Handel’s invitation to join him in London as principal copyist, anglicizing his name and surviving him by just four years. Handel manuscripts, including some of his conducting scores, were bequeathed to Smith and eventually to his son, John Christopher Smith the younger, who was born in Germany in 1712 but came to London with his father. He it was who, as a child, took keyboard lessons from Handel, studied composition with – amongst others – Pepusch, collaborated with Garrick and helped the blind Handel with performances of what were genuine Handel oratorios. So Smith was uniquely well placed to continue the tradition of promoting Handel oratorios – both in idea and actuality - after the composer’s death in 1759, co-operating with the organist John Stanley on Friday performances in Lent in London, for example. 

Tobit is what’s known as a ‘pasticcio’. As well as various kinds of ‘mixture’, pasticcio in Italian that can actually mean ‘a mess’, as in “What a mess!” rather than pastiche. By the early eighteenth century it meant a kind of composite – often of music by different composers – with more of a commercial than an artistic purpose. By the time of Handel’s death Smith had quite a stock of operas and oratorios on which to draw and from which to assemble saleable items for performance; though it’s clear from the persuasive music on this CD that money was not his (only) objective: he knew good and worthwhile music. By 1764 he had put Rebecca together and at the same time Nabal to a libretto by Thomas Morell, a Cambridge cleric. It was the librettist’s task for these pasticci to fit words to pre-existing music. This Morell also did in the case of Tobit using the text of the eponymous apocryphal book in the Greek Septuagint and the Bible. 

The music is by Handel, but not from an oratorio called Tobit by him. There’s no such thing. In fact it’s compiled from other of his operas, oratorios and miscellaneous other works by Smith and tells the story of the pious and faithful Tobias the elder (Tobit) who is persecuted for – amongst other things - burying the dead. His adversary is the new ruler, Sennacherib - on whom Mussorgsky later took revenge in his Byron setting. Eventually Tobit drives adversity off and lives long enough to see his son, also Tobias, married to Sarah whom he meets (and ‘saves’) on the long journey that forms the main action of Tobit. It’s easy to conclude that Smith’s motives were ones of moral exhortation; good triumphs in every respect: Tobit’s blindness is cured and the bad city of Nineveh destroyed. 

You should not, however, expect an ill-fitting ragbag of Handel-like numbers, unconnected by anything except the story. In fact, Tobit is constructed of well-paced numbers (recitatives, arias, choruses etc), contains some very beautiful music (particularly the choruses) and repays careful listening. There are beautiful moments – many of them; in 2½ hours the music never lags; variety ensures that the musical and dramatic development are carried simply forward and interest maintained and sustained throughout. Almost all the music is palpably Handelian and vigorously executed at that: these are not soloists or an orchestra who get involved with messes – and they acquit themselves admirably here.

This CD is taken from a live performance – very live, in fact: there are several moments of extraneous noise, which are at times almost intrusive, though not so much so as to spoil the performance, which is in English. In addition to the usual biographies and notes about the performance, though not the libretto, the CD liner lists the 66 separate sources from which the music is taken. Even Joachim Carlos Martini has a hand in some of the additions, which are annotated in the list.

Handel purists will probably jib at the very concept of ‘compiling’ a would-be integral whole from disparate parts. But when one remembers just how much borrowing and recycling of his own works Handel did, the wrench is a little slighter. If it’s an enjoyable, well-performed and moving oratorio by the Baroque’s greatest exponent thereof that you want, then this 2-CD Naxos offering of an otherwise rare article should certainly be given a chance. 

Mark Sealey 

 


 

 


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